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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS | HOWARD ROSENBERG / ON TELEVISION

Rather Than Play Games, NBC Went Back to Them

July 28, 1996|HOWARD ROSENBERG

Everything was running smoothly. Then kablooey, and for a while, the Games of 1996 were imitating Dorando Pietri in 1908.

Pietri was the little Italian marathoner who looked like a sure gold medalist in London that year when he trotted into White City Stadium leading the second-place runner by 600 meters, only to falter.

Wrote a reporter about Pietri's epic struggle to cover the final 300 meters: "He staggered along the cinder path like a man in a dream, his gait being neither a walk nor a run, but simply a flounder, with arms shaking and legs tottering."

Unlike the burned-out Pietri, who was disqualified for being pushed to his rubbery feet and helped across the finish line after collapsing three times, the Atlanta Games appear on sturdy legs again after that jolting explosion in Centennial Olympic Park, where thousands were partying at a free outdoor concert early Saturday morning.

Resulting in only two deaths, this wasn't Munich, where in 1972 Arab fanatics murdered 11 Israeli Olympians in a macabre tragedy played out largely on TV. Because it was so random, the Atlanta bomb was potentially even scarier, though, injuring more than 100 wee-hours revelers who just happened to be in the vicinity, while mortifying the throngs.

The FBI was investigating a 911 call that warned of a bomb in the park 18 minutes before it exploded, one official saying at a televised news conference Saturday that the anonymous caller was thought to be a "white male." Big news, especially the FBI's technology through which it apparently can determine a voice's skin color.

After following this stomach-churning story through the chaotic night--during which CNN, MSNBC, ESPN and six Los Angeles stations stayed with the story live--how settling to see NBC resume its scheduled Olympic coverage Saturday morning with the heptathlon. Even the tedious rowing that immediately followed was a welcome antidote to the preceding 10 or 11 hours, as were the day's stunning 100-meter events for men and women much later.

Normality is what the nation needed.

Given its tendency to fantasize in Atlanta at times, you half expected NBC to show a videotape of the blast and sell it to America as suspenseful live TV. Yet actually, NBC (alternately on MSNBC and Channel 4) was credible much of the night. Like others beaming live from Atlanta, though, it reached a point well before 1 a.m. here when there was hardly any news to report, yet kept covering the explosion anyway, speculating and repeating fragmentary, often conflicting data, as newscasters tend to do when schmoozing away the hours during breaking big stories.

In the frantic, muddled aftermath of the explosion, clashing casualty counts and eyewitness tales were tossed at viewers as swiftly as they came in, as if the equivalent of reporters' raw notes were a news story.

The rocket here, though, was Tom Brokaw, exactly the calming, cooling, familiar, brotherly voice of reason that a nation needs to hear when nervously stressed out by "some crazed act," as the anchor of "NBC Nightly News" later defined the explosion that caused pandemonium.

In Atlanta as part of NBC's Olympic entourage, Brokaw affirmed through the night that there's more to being a network anchor than showboating in the field, going ego to ego with VIPs and reading snappy intros to news stories. These are times when the job also requires a serene presence, when an anchor is the equivalent of a flight attendant whose face you search for hints of panic when jostled by unfriendly skies.

Given the absence of those other big bananas, Peter Jennings of ABC and Dan Rather of CBS, Brokaw had network anchordom to himself on this occasion, and despite occasionally lapsing into goofyspeak while filling time that couldn't be filled with news, he was supremely reassuring in just about everything he said and projected.

Just as CNN's arsenal included street-level home video of the explosion that it replayed incessantly, NBC repeatedly reran its own pictures, showing the concert when the bomb went off, spraying nails and screws everywhere. Of course everyone, it seemed, had pictures of U.S. Olympian Janet Evans having her interview with German TV abruptly halted by the nearby explosion's shattering boom.

KNBC had its own edge. Other stations here had only sportscasters on the scene and used video feeds from other broadcasters but KNBC had in place a large retinue of L.A. disaster-seasoned anchors, reporters and support personnel which for days had been airing Olympics newscasts from Atlanta.

It also had KNBC cameraman Mark Field's amazing shot of the unattended knapsack that he said contained the explosive device, videotape he had shot shortly before a security officer had ordered him away from this "suspicious package" on the ground. Then . . . the blast.

Meanwhile, Channel 4's blabby Atlanta foursome--anchors Paul Moyer and Colleen Williams, sportscaster Fred Roggin and weatherman Fritz Coleman--were on camera themselves, huddled tightly together like campers in the rain while giving their own testimony of tumult in the way that TV news stars so often personalize stories.

"I just talked to Janet Evans, and she is terrified," Roggin told his colleagues on camera several hours after the blast. "Her voice was shaking, and she said she was scared, and she started to cry, and I told her we were coming, and we're going right over there now."

The visit produced an interview with the overexposed Evans--"My heart is still, like, pounding . . ."--that Channel 4 ran Saturday along with more anecdotes from its staff headquartered near the cratered bomb site. Moyer said he was about 75 feet from the device when it exploded, Williams a little further.

The tongues keep going, yet thankfully, so do the Games.

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